So You Want to Be a Law Librarian?

A SLAW hat-tip to Brenda Wong and her co-blogger Karen Sawatzky at Library Technician Dialog for making me aware of the following online slideshow called If you Want to Work in Libraries, Here are 10 Things You Need to Know by Ned Potter.

I think the author nicely captures some of the opportunities for working in the information field (e.g., working with people and technology) along with some of the challenges (e.g., constant change and tough competition).

Many of these topics arose in my regular guest lecture to the FIS 2133 Legal Literature and Librarianship class earlier this week at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information, taught by John Papadopoulos and Sooin Kim, especially in our discussion in response to the Debates on the Value of Law Firm Librarians summarized on SLAW. Eve Leung, a Research Librarian at the Ontario Legislative Assembly Library, was also a guest participant in the discussion.

However, I am not sure I was entirely satisfied with my answers to the class on the role of law librarians and why I think there remains a need for them in the age of Google and relatively easy online access to information. What follows here, then, is an attempt to better articulate the role of law librarians and why I see a positive future for this role. And although I take responsibility for the comments that follow, I have most certainly benefited from the group discussion at the session and have likely incorporated snippets from the various speakers and students in the class.

1) Specialized knowledge/skills: What separates most law librarians from lawyers is that librarians have specialized knowledge of sources of law and the skills necessary to efficiently and effectively search those sources of law, integrating both print and online sources. As such, on the risk of law librarians being replaced by lawyers who will “self-service” in the age of the Internet, I don’t see this is a problem, especially since most lawyers will readily admit they lack sufficient skills in this area or are otherwise too busy to do such work effectively.

2) Information overload: Related to this is the threat of information overload. Law librarians can play an important role to filter information for lawyers. For example, law librarians can easily exercise their professional judgment to critically limit the circulation of current awareness news to the most important/relevant news for a particular lawyer or practice group. Likewise, within the context of a particular research project, law librarians will tend to be more efficient than lawyers in going through large volumes of amassed research to focus on the most relevant or useful material. In addition, many librarians will be better situated than lawyers with technologies such as RSS feeds or Lexis Publisher in knowing how to most effectively filter and distribute relevant information.

3) Value-add: To the extent that Google does not yet answer everything law-related, law librarians are well poised to add value to the information they provide to lawyers. If a lawyer asks for a copy of a court decision, it is a matter of minutes at little or no cost to also provide the lawyer note-up records for the decision along with leading case comments, blog posts and more recent cases on point, something many lawyers might not do (or might not know how to do) for themselves.

4) Strategic Partnerships: There is much to be said for law librarians to break out of the “cocoon” of the law library and partner strategically with other staff within the organization. This could include cooperating with conducting competitive or business intelligence with the Marketing Department or working more closely with Information Technology staff on intranet or project management projects. My lecture in part discussed my paper The Evolution of Law-Related Knowledge Management in North America – Opportunities for Law Librarians. I strongly feel that many law librarians are under-represented in knowledge management within law firms and are short-selling themselves and their organizations by not being more actively involved. The more that law librarians look to help others within the organization, the more indispensable they make themselves, which is never a bad thing.

5) Training: An important aspect of what most law librarians do is to train their patrons on effective legal research and information literacy. Even if we assume that the ease of access to online information means that lawyers will be doing more on their own, they (and particularly students) would still need or benefit from some basic training and most law librarians are the best situated to conduct such training.

6) Changing Roles / Adapting to Change: One of the 10 things identified in the slide show at the start of this post on things you need to know about being a librarian is the need to be able to adapt to change. This is a major phenomenon within the law library industry: changes in technology, changes in resources, changes in the law. As such, the ability to adapt to and embrace change is especially important for law librarians.

On the issue of the risk of legal process outshoring (LPO) taking away the jobs of law librarians and legal researchers: I am increasingly uncertain of my standard response that this does not threaten me in my work. My standard rationale for not being too concerned include the following points:

  • Print: Print resources resources remain critical to most legal research and many LPO firms will not necessarily have adequate print collections of law-related “print only” materials, such as certain loose-leaf publications, CLE papers or other monographs.
  • Localized knowledge of laws/customs: Practicing law in Toronto brings with it localized knowledge of the reputation of certain judges or counsel that can impact your assessment of the materials you are researching and most LPO firms will not have this localized knowledge.
  • Localized knowledge of users: researchers or librarians embedded in the local organization will know their users better than most off-site researchers.
  • Confidentiality concerns: Although at the risk of sounding xenophobic or paranoid, there exists a perception (I think) that “keeping it in-house” means a tighter control over confidentiality and privacy.

I of course realize the growing weakness of these defences. If that is true, then perhaps there is a risk of some of the work done by North American law librarians being out-sourced. If so, there is an increased need for North American law librarians to both focus better on how they can contribute to their organization’s “bottom line” at the same time as better marketing themselves and their “valued-added” or unique services that cannot be done better by someone else.

I welcome comments from those both within and outside of the law library community.


  1. Bravo Ted! I can’t agree more with your recommendation that librarians should get out of the library, and should be looking for ways to support the business of law broadly. Yes, helping the lawyers and students will remain an important part of what we do (for now), but being seen as contributing to the bottom line by supporting business development would pay bigger dividends.

  2. Very stimulating article: one of the “must keep somewhere” kind.

    I would point out as a value-added skill, our ability at finding information not pertaining to law.

    On LPO’s :

    If all firms were to outsource their information services, how would they differ from others in the level of quality they are able to provide to themselves and clients? Let’s not forget that it is not the information available that makes the difference but rather, the ways we are able to find it.

    We might share the same lowest common denominator (through LPO’s, online subscriptions, library collection, …), but we also should be able to say to our lawyers that with our skills, we are making the difference. In a way, law firm librarians are also competing with each others and surely our lawyers would be glad to know they’ve hired the best person for that job.

  3. Thank you for linking to my slide-deck Ted, and for your kind words. I completely agree with your ideas about what value we have as Information Professionals. Particularly the Information Overload thing – there is that statistic along the lines of, more information is produced in 2010 than in the previous 5000 years put together (or is it more information is produced every 48hrs or something ridiculous like that?) so at this rate people will actually be worse off than before they had easy access to information! The Tyranny of Choice (and the lack of guidance as to what is legitmate information and what isn’t) is a real problem, and one we are ideally placed to assist with, as you say.

    I think one of the biggest problems we face is the fact that people don’t know what we can do for them. If you ask an average legal professional to name six positive things about the role of the law librarian (and their continued value and utility into the future) they may not name the same six as you (although I’m sure there’d be some overlap). I may be wrong here but I’d guess they’d name at least four things that are so embeded in what you do, so obvious and assumed, that you didn’t even feel the need to list them above. We are taking on all these new skills in this changing industry, but are finding it very difficult to shake off old associations (which have of course had literally hundreds of years to become engrained).

    I think our biggest challenge is not trying to find a role in this digital world, but to successfully communicate to others what this role is and why it should matter to them. Laura Woods (a Law Librarian, as it happens) and I have been attempting to bring this debate to a wider audience, dubbing it The Echo Chamber problem (with the tag #echolib). Essentially this refers to the idea that we librarians spend too much time talking to each other (when the profession is attacked, we tell each other how terrible that is rather than issuing a public riposte that reaches the same audience as the initial attack) and do so inside an enclosed space – our ideas often don’t reach potential users, who are currently unaware of all we can do, or indifferent to our services. It basically comes down to the need to market the profession (as widely as possible, but also to internal stakeholders – particularly with Special Libraries) in way that preaches to the unconverted.

    Sorry, this has turned into quite a long comment! Another of my slide decks explains a bit more here, and there’s a whole bunch of info on the subject here.

  4. I want to thank everyone for their comments, especially the lengthy one by thewikiman.

    These are worthwhile discussions to have, especially since I am still not sure I am satisfied with my answers/justifications.

    I am wondering if “technology” or “information literacy” is another part of the answer since most information professions – by necessity – tend to be technoogically proficient or, if not, at least, information literate, both important if not essential skills.

  5. why I think there remains a need for them in the age of Google and relatively easy online access to information. What follows here, then, is an attempt to better articulate the role of law librarians and why I see a positive future for this role

    I look forward to the embedment of (law) librarians in electronic discovery. What continues to amaze me is the chasm of no-comment, non-discussion and non-publishing by law librarians on e-discovery vs. some lead enterprise-wide document/content management managers (who are also librarians) in other industry sectors, who are engaged in the e-discovery process, yet do publish occasionally on e-discovery. But that is rare, for a number of reasons.

    I have moved from being a law library manager and librarian for a number of years back into the engineering world where I originally started (a govn’t /regulatory agency). Document management and e-discovery are/can be twinned together, especially for common situations of ie. construction claims or quality assurance processes bound by regulatory requirements. If the law librarian moves into a strategic role within a firm, and has oversight for standards on data governance, develops strong working knowledge of information and document workflows with a firm, the person offers faster capacity to pinpoint breadcrumb trail of document workflows for e-discovery situations as well as executing the usual, ie. legal holds on certain records.

    The most stunning examples of understanding the value knowledge and role of a librarian/document manager would be to stop a staff meeting midway, because an engineering manager charged (politely) into the room, looking for a $6 million contract. Or explaining to a staff member, the importance of assembling every document scrap in sequence, for renegotiation of $45 million contract. This is no longer about document processing.

    The missing piece on the e-discovery team is not more computer or IT people, but an experienced librarian who already has a trained “nose” and integrated view of different styles and patterns of information creation, sources, use and data across a spectrum of different formats under different work conditions. This is part of librarian DNA. More usefully, the law librarian might already have experience in other sectors prior to the law firm, to understand terminology / concepts in other industries for certain client case work.